Railroad Response in Lancaster County
Recent events in Western Ohio have brought railroad incident response questions to the front of many people’s minds. Can this happen here, and will I be affected? Has it happened here? Is it safe? How prepared is the County of Lancaster to respond?
Lancaster County Health Advisory Council document - Information regarding impacts of East Palestine, Ohio Train Derailment 2/23/2023
Can it happen here?
Yes, anywhere there are railroad tracks railroad accidents are possible. Lancaster County has approximately 135 miles of rail line run by nine (9) railroads. Over 115,000 households live within 1.3 miles of a railroad track. That accounts for nearly half of all county residents. Why 1.3 miles? That is recommended evacuation distance for a pressurized railcar involved in a fire like the scenario in Ohio.
Pennsylvania Railroad Map (2022), PENNDOT
Has it happened in Lancaster County before?
Yes. Since 2000 there have been three serious accidents involving trains that caused public protective actions to be implemented. In 2000, Marietta had an acid car leaking, causing the evacuation of part of the town. In 2005, a car of Pentane was leaking in Lancaster City requiring the activation of the County’s Foam Taskforce as a precaution. A fire in piping to butane/propane railcars caught fire outside of Mount Joy required some residential evacuations in the summer of 2013.
Crews work on a leaking acid railcar in Marietta, PA - Friday, October 13, 2000
Is rail transport safe?
While no transportation method can be considered entirely risk-free, railroad transportation is generally considered safer than other modes of transportation, such as over-the-road or air transport, when it comes to transporting hazardous materials or "HAZMAT". In 2022, we had two train accidents. Both of those involved road vehicles striking or being stuck by a train. Additionally, a locomotive caught fire in southern Lancaster County in April 2022. Compare that to nearly 8000 reported road vehicle accidents involving fires in 2022.
Pipes catch fire near Mount Joy, PA - July 2, 2013
How prepared is the County of Lancaster to respond to a hazardous rail emergency?
Lancaster County Emergency Management Agency (LEMA) has been involved with hazardous materials and transportation incidents planning for decades. Beginning in 1991, the Hazardous Materials (HAZMAT) Administrator created plans for responding to all commodities transported via rail, including Crude Oil Unit Trains, or "COUT". These plans are detailed and go above and beyond what is required by Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Title 35 and PA Act 165 requirements. Commodities transported by rail in Lancaster County are intricately detailed and all vulnerabilities, assets, resources, and response agencies at all levels of government are taken into consideration. The HAZMAT administrator also provides training on the plans to many first response agencies and continues these efforts regularly throughout the year.
Lancaster EMA, in conjunction with the contracted hazardous materials response team, HazMat 2 Environmental Fire Rescue, takes rail emergencies very seriously. HazMat 2 Environmental Fire Rescue has specialists in railcar response, GIS, and plume modeling, allowing them to assess and respond to emergency situations involving hazardous materials quickly. Mitigating the rail emergency to reduce the environmental and human impacts in this scenario is the top priority. As was outlined as a priority in East Palestine, Ohio, the sharing of information between agencies is important. Hazmat 2 remains the only agency in the nation to be recognized as ChemResponder Prepared by FEMA's ChemResponder Program (first recognized in August 2021). This program is designed to quickly share data, including air, water, and sample monitoring, with partner agencies to develop public safety actions and messaging plans. The data collected by Hazmat 2 can be accessed in minutes by state and federal agencies, including the Interagency Modeling and Atmospheric Assessment Center, to help inform decision- making during an emergency.
Training and Exercises
In addition, Lancaster County Emergency Management and HazMat 2 conduct training with railroad partners semi-annually at events and exercises with TRANSCAER® (Transportation Community Awareness and Emergency Response). This helps to keep communication open with railroad partners and ensures that all parties are well-prepared to respond to emergencies involving hazardous materials. The County provides funding and training opportunities to dozens of first responders for HAZMAT preparedness. Exercises are conducted regularly throughout the year in various settings and locations. Additionally, LEMA personnel are sent to get updated technical training on rail and HAZMAT response at state-of-the-art facilities such as the Security and Emergency Response Training Center (SERTC).
HazMat 2-1 and the Norfolk Southern HazMat Safety Training during a 2019 exercise
Lancaster County also provides HAZMAT training for dozens of first responders each year through the Lancaster County Public Safety Training Center at no cost to the responders. This training is funded by PA Act 165 grant funds as well as SARA Title III chemical reporting fees. Hazardous materials planning, training, and exercise initiatives are steered by the Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC).
Lancaster Emergency Management Agency and Hazmat 2’s advanced technological capabilities, well-trained staff, and partnerships with local agencies and railroad partners make them well-prepared to respond to a railroad emergency in Lancaster County (PA).